Artist Woods Davy works from his Venice Beach studio to create vertical assemblages of natural, unaltered stone that appear to float, that delicately defy gravity. He assembles stone and has also assembled a massive collection of kifwebe masks too — a gathering of “hauntingly powerful stares. My work and collection of bifwebe both deny the natural order.”
He has so many kifwebe masks in fact, that he finds it difficult to add; “I have so many, it is difficult to find a mask that speaks to me these days that is also accessible to me and is a bit different than what I have.”
Laser focused on collecting bifwebe, we catch up with Woods to learn all about his “otherworldly” masks, his collecting philosophy, and the reception his collection has received over the years. With over 34 collecting years under his belt, it’s a long read full of poetry, unwavering passion, and wisdom.
I am a sculptor, working with natural stones in unaltered states, creating works that deny their natural identity and the natural order of gravity.
I became fascinated with art from other cultures in 1987, which lead me to African and Oceanic art. As I started to visit museums with this newfound interest in mind, I ran across a catalogue of the Ruth and Ernst Anspach collection in the Met bookstore. I went downstairs to the payphones, he was listed, so I called him. He invited me over and I spent the next four hours at his apartment on the Upper Westside. When I left, he gave me a great Wurkun figure on a spike. We developed a wonderful friendship, and I acquired some fantastic pieces from him. He put me in contact with Irwin Hersey, who introduced me to Mert Simpson, Allan Stone, and Noble Endicott. I remember seeing the Songye figure show at Allan Stone’s, which was remarkable.
In the late 1980s. I was fascinated with the magical, non-secular aspect of the function and use of various objects. For me, to hold something in my hand that was believed in as magical or religious, that had meaning outside of aesthetics, was a very different experience that excited me.
The first object we ever acquired was a pre-classic West Mexico, Jalisco Warrior from the Stendahl Gallery. The first African piece we ever bought was probably from Ernie Wolf, a Senufo bed or a Kigango figure. My friend Ernie is my Dr Frankenstein.
I think I bought my first good kifwebe from Mona Gavigan, Africa Gallery, Washington D.C.
Misplaced trust in myself. And I fell victim to certain dealers and collectors who knowingly sold fakes. I traded an Mbala figure, originally from the collection of Maurice Vlaminck that I got from Ernst Anspach, for a fake kifwebe. That hurt.
It is a difficult path to navigate for a new collector and at the time, I naively believed my own eye, before I should have. I had not seen enough good objects to develop my eye, I had not studied, and I was impatient. But that was my path, which slowly worked for me as I started to learn more.
Looking back, I am happy to have known next to nothing. There is no replacement for learning by making mistakes, of which I made plenty. The reward comes from the knowledge gained through those mistakes that gradually forces one to slow down, study, look at more objects, talk to many dealers, collectors and scholars.
Obsessive collectors seem to be the most knowledgeable about their area of interest because they live their lives with this passion. On occasion, scholars or academics are doubtful of obscure styles they are not familiar with because they may not always have the learned intuition which, in my opinion, trumps intellectual reasoning.
"For me, power transcends beauty."
For me, power transcends beauty. I focused on the kifwebe mask due to its hauntingly powerful stare, fused with its combination of intelligence and emotion.
First, I was attracted to the classic styles, then I became very interested in the little-known, unusual styles, and the less generic of the classic styles.
It is important to me to find masks that have their own individual identity, like the recent acquisition of a male Kalebwe with a unique set of eye cavities and mouth holes; and a Western Songye mask, possibly female or androgynous, with a concave, curved nose and oval mouth.
There were many [works made by artists from several ethnic groups that appealed to me], they shared a sense of art brute (Keaka, Angus, and Montol figures, Kumu masks, Lega masks, Himalayan masks), power (Songye figures, other Central African figures, Mumuye figures), architectural (Eastern Pende masks, Dogon masks), or infused with an animal spirit (Mumuye masks, Bamana masks, Ijaw spirit masks, Burkina Faso masks).
I wish I could remember the first kifwebe mask I ever saw, but I do remember as I stared at it, it stared back at me with great intensity from across the room. It was startling. I wanted to have that feeling in my life. But it took a long time to find.
Gradually, as I saw and studied more and more bifwebe (plural of kifwebe), I began to see this stare again through my eyes as a sculptor.
I recognised a feeling inherent in the masks made for traditional use in the bwadi bwa kifwebe society that gave them a reason for being. I developed a sense of subjective intuition that helped me make a judgement that was felt, not reasoned. And when I felt doubt, I realised there was no doubt.
What clearly excited me about these masks was the presence of their otherworldly ‘beingness’. It is not only the physical properties or that wonderful aesthetic combination of architecture and emotion that spoke to me — but underneath it all, I was fascinated by that undefinable hybridity of human, animal and spirit that is beyond my world, beyond the natural order.
I saw expressions of fascinating emotional intensities — the agony of wisdom, menacing benevolence, peaceful omnipotence, aggressive intimidation, and terror. I saw curvilinear Songye masks with primary groove patterns of flowing continuity and began to analyse their secondary groove patterns; and compared this continuity with the choppy, compartmentalised groove structure of the boxy Eastern Luba masks.
For me, it is a necessity to investigate the reason why an object exists. Why was it made, what did it do? In some instances, the same mask could be used for both secular and magical-religious practices.
Two main cultures made the kifwebe mask, the Songye and Luba. In the Eastern Songye world, they were usually made for evil purposes — (male; kilume); low crest means lesser power and high crest means greater power, primarily red, white, and black — or for protection (female; kikashi), primarily white. Those forces of good and evil can bring a sense of balance and harmony to the village. The benevolent Eastern Luba masks had less obvious gender distinctions, as they usually lacked a crest and were primarily white.
Where the Luba and Songye border each other, in the Lubengule region, there is an intermingling of mask styles referred to as Luba-Songye.
With the Kalebwe, the size of the crest varied with the malevolent males but did not necessarily denote the level of power, while the benevolent females had no crests.
And there is the Western Songye, usually without a crest, or other signs of gender distinction.
The effectiveness of these Songye masks came from the magic possessed by the individual himself. In the Luba world, both males and females were usually benevolent, tasked with removing evil forces from the village. Unlike the Songye, they needed ancestral help to do their job.
"A kifwebe mask is more than what it looks like, it is what it did."
Marc Felix has been immensely helpful on and off for over thirty years. In the old days, he would come to town, and I would visit him in his hotel and see fantastic objects, including some great bifwebe. I began to sense quality through intensity of expression. He gave me some valuable tips on styles, wood, and age. I started to recognise styles that fit a certain timeframe. There could be a late Eastern Songye mask that was used traditionally, but not a late Kalebwe mask that was used traditionally.
I saw his 'Luba Zoo' exhibition in NYC in 1992 and was quite fascinated. Later, I was able to acquire eleven of his masks from the show, plus additional zoomorphic examples of the Luba and Zela from other sources. He later introduced me to Willy Mestach. I was fortunate enough to visit Willy on several occasions to examine his kifwebe material. I learned a great deal from Marc.
Later, Dunja Hersak and I became good friends, and we had many kifwebe discussions primarily in Brussels and at my home in Venice, which was always a welcome learning experience. I had purchased her book years before we first met. Coincidentally, years later, I was able to acquire some Eastern Songye bifwebe that she illustrated in her book with her field photos from 1977-78. Two of them, a male elder and a female, performed together in the Eastern Songye village of Iluga Ngulu, along with a third mask that I do not own.
Another mask that I acquired performed in the village of Kita I. Her field photo of a very strong Eastern Songye male from the village of Kikomo, appeared on the summer 2012 cover of African Arts magazine, accompanying an article she wrote. I always loved that mask from her book. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to acquire it. It had been overpainted in the culture as often happens, but you can still see traces of the original orange pigment under the red pigment.
Dunja was kind enough to send me some of these field shots along with some of Plasmans’ Kalebwe bifwebe field shots. One of the Plasmans shots show four maskers at night, one of which, on the left, had two short, stubby horns. Somewhere along the way, the horns were removed, most likely for commercial purposes.
Another Plasmans field shot shows a bizarre treatment of the eyes, with painted pupils. This mask was clearly contrary to my developing ideas about the kifwebe mask, sabotaging to my western eyes. How could such a malevolent mask look so cartoonish? In the culture, it wasn’t. I hated this mask until I loved it. I later acquired it and eventually several others of this same style.
I spent many hours on several occasions studying the bifwebe in the exhibition, ‘Face of the Spirits’, organised by Frank Herreman and Constantijn Petridis at the National Museum for African Art in Washington in 1994.
I do not speak French, so a few years ago, I had Mutimanwa Wenga-Mulayi’s 229-page limited edition book/thesis, ‘Etude Socio-Morphologique des Masques Blancs Luba ou Bifwebe’, 1974, translated into English for my personal study. Although primarily based on mid-century Luba bifwebe, his field research has proven invaluable in my quest for knowledge.
And my time with Francois Neyt has been most valuable, as I will discuss later.
I kept studying and learning, read everything I could find, many trips to Europe, many discussions with dealers, collectors, and scholars, many museum visits... I eventually started to recognise copies of bifwebe. I felt they were blank and lifeless. My learning curve seemed to be improving, I was acquiring good masks. This was at a time when there was an overabundance of doubt about most bifwebe from the African art-buying crowd, so many very good masks were not that expensive.
I just kept going, but still made mistakes. As I went deeper, I began to categorize different styles, gender distinctions, functions, and probable areas of origin of many Songye and Luba masks. This is very difficult to attempt as some styles travelled through the Democratic Republic of the Congo and were adapted by carvers in different regions. But objectively, there are stylistic traits or characteristics that can be identified with specific regions of origin.
The collection started to grow and physically spread throughout our home. It needed more space. About ten years ago I built a kifwebe study gallery above my studio to focus on the similarities and differences of the same basic type of kifwebe mask. The idea was to change exhibitions periodically for my study purposes, Kalebwe male, Eastern Luba, Western Songye, Eastern Songye female, Luba Zoomorphic, etc. But after initially installing a Kalebwe male exhibition, it grew and I am still learning from it, so it continues there.
I have researched the differences between Northern Kalebwe and central Kalebwe male masks, which primarily has to do with the eye cavities and the continuation of the facial groove pattern required in North Kalebwe masks, as opposed to the absence of the groove pattern on the eye cavities in the Central Kalebwe masks, I have a database with over thirty drop-down menus with sub-categories that I have used to compare and cross-reference these similarities and differences of the various types of bifwebe. I will always remain a student and collector of this material, not an expert or scholar.
I was very fortunate to meet Eric Ghysels, the owner of 5 Continents Editions, on several occasions. We decided to do a book on my bifwebe collection, including a chapter authored by me detailing my observations as a sculptor. Didier Claes recommended the project to Francois Neyt, which was fantastic. We started emailing, and he came out for ten days to study and research the collection. We had inspiring discussions every day, all day. Subsequently, Francois, Eric, and I had a number of meetings in Brussels and Paris.
The time Francois and I spent together here in Venice, and in Brussels, and Paris was a terrific learning experience for me. We talked through different hypotheses and identified different physical characteristics which pointed to specific regions of origin where earlier field notes and photos had been documented. Having been born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he has great knowledge of the people, their customs, and the land. His knowledge of the kifwebe society and its rituals is immense. He was the co-director, along with Joseph Cornet, for Wenga-Mulayi’s book/thesis in 1974.
I was very excited to have curator Kevin D. Dumouchelle of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, who had previously visited, agree to contribute a literary review of the kifwebe mask. His scholarly essay is excellent. He joined us in several of our European meetings. I asked Allen F. Roberts of UCLA if he would write the Preface, I was so thankful for his positive response, and I loved his analysis of bifwebe and our collection. I wrote my chapter on my original observations, through my eyes as a sculptor. Kellim Brown, a researcher/dealer friend came up with a very interesting hypothesis based on this mask, collected by Karl Timmermans.
The pieces were falling into place and I am so thankful to all involved. Eric and his staff did a beautiful job of putting it all together, and my photographer/friend Alan Shaffer made the masks appear the way I saw them. Didier came up with the title one night after dinner at my home: ‘Kifwebe: A Century of Songye and Luba Masks.’
It changes from time to time, but here is a top-five at the moment. At Bruneaf in 2004 or so, I walked into Didier Claes’ gallery, and he said, “Ah Woods, I have something for you, it’s in the kitchen.” And there was an incredible Songye female with double eyebrows, unique groove pattern of great continuity, serene expression, he told me about a few similar examples, probably by the same hand. I knew it was mine from the second I saw it.
Around ten years later I saw a Kalebwe male in Frank van Kraen’s gallery at Bruneaf that I immediately fell in love with. It was from Marie-Jeanne Walschot, then Marc Felix, then private collections. It was expensive for me at the time, but my friend Guy van Rijn helped me with negotiations.
I bought a very powerful female Songye mask of hardwood with great age, from Mark Eglinton, originally sold by Philippe Guimiot. I pretty much had to beg for it.
And there is a powerfully aggressive Songye shield I bought from Didier 4 or 5 years ago from a pre-1930 German collection that kills me every time I walk by it.
Alain Naoum sold me an intense Kalebwe male mask during Bruneaf five or seven years ago that was field-collected and photographed by Karel Plasmans. It is a combination of power and beauty. The Quai Branly has one by the same hand.
There are many other masks that stand out which could be on this list that I have acquired from other sources: Dartevelle, Laeremans, de Buck, Naoum, Pecci, van Rijn, Van de Velde, Dulon, Keita, Christiaens, DeRoche, Riley, Simpson, Brown, Conru, PACE, Arthur, Christie’s, Vranken-Hoet, Castellano, Larroque, I could go on; plus a total of fifteen masks field collected by Karel Plasmans between 1955-72 that are dear to me.
If I can see it in person, I examine it in depth. Does it speak to me? Does it hold my stare? Is it powerful? What is the emotional weight? Is it non-generic? Is it old? Years ago, I would ask many sources for their opinion before purchasing, now I don’t do that, except on rare occasions.
I like to try to regionalise a mask by physical traits, establish influences from other areas, try to place it in the greater kifwebe world. Also, if I am considering buying a mask from photos, I print the photos out at the scale of the mask, sometimes taping printed pages together to see the complete mask at the proper size. Then I tape it to a wall next to other examples to see how it may fit in with my collection. But sometimes there is no time for that.
A few years ago, an important Songye shield, that I recognised as being from the Katompe region, was offered to me by the Laeremans in the middle of the night, California time. Within thirty minutes, I bought it.
I have always been full speed ahead, which accelerated my learning experience. In doing so, I became aware of the many different styles or types of Songye and Luba bifwebe. I tried to collect them all, and still do, to a certain extent. If I find a more interesting, older example I de-access the first one.
Ultimately, top quality and the quest for masterworks remain the priority. I am thankful to have acquired certain great masks before the prices went sky high. And I am always in the process of curating them into tiers based on masterworks, quality, region, and morphological distinctions.
That has changed considerably over the years, but so has my collection. A lot of the veteran LA collectors used to come over, as we had a broad range of very good African objects, but for the most part, they did not care for the bifwebe that started to appear in our collection. There were and still are a tremendous number of copies made for the marketplace. It was frustrating, but my constant looking at hundreds of these masks gave me a sense of which ones had juice. And I should add, I lent some of these same masks, which are top quality, years later to an important museum exhibition.
I have collected a large quantity of kifwebe maskettes over the years and in 2008, I wrote an article, 'Kifwebe Maskettes of the Luba and Songye' for Tribal Art Magazine, which included images of some of my maskettes as well as others from various public and private collections. I really enjoyed the research and the article achieved considerable positive attention and respect. I was interviewed by Alex Arthur in Tribal Art Magazine in the Autumn 2019 issue, with quite a few bifwebe photos from our collection, which was very well received, lots of great comments. I was very flattered.
In 2010, at the initial suggestion of Amyas Naegele, I lent two fully costumed Eastern Songye masks to the Dallas Museum of Art for their exhibition, 'The Art of Disguise,' accompanied by a short film that Patric Claes took of them in performance. Senior curator, Rosalyn Walker consulted with Dunja Hersak prior to the loan and I gave some gallery talks. There was a wonderful response, they even made the evening news.
When Dunja Hersak used to visit, one time we hosted a big party for her and invited all her colleagues who were in town for the 2011 ACASA Triennial at UCLA. There was a tremendously positive response to the collection, which has since improved significantly. Dunja had asked me to be on a panel she was chairing, 'Beyond the Naked Eye.' Years later she featured our collection at a lecture at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and at the Getty Center in LA a few years after that, great responses there as well.
In 2013, I lent three bifwebe to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the West Coast instalment of Chris Kreamer’s exhibition, 'African Cosmos.' Polly Nooter Roberts and Al Roberts made the selections. There was a very positive response to the quality of my loan!
In Paris, at Parcours des Mondes in 2019, Francois Neyt and I each gave a PowerPoint presentation in advance of the release of the book in the media room at Alkazar. It was very well attended, with an enthusiastic response from the audience.
In Brussels in February of 2020, during BRAFA, Didier Claes hosted the launch of the kifwebe book at his gallery, where there was a large enthusiastic crowd. He has always been extremely helpful to me.
What I have also really enjoyed are the visits from collectors, dealers, scholars and museum curators. I love to share my passion and my personal kifwebe observations with them. They always left with a newfound respect and appreciation for this genre of masks. The visits from Polly Nooter Roberts from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and UCLA were always so special and inspiring to me. She is sorely missed.
Other memorable positive visits include art historian and filmmaker Susan Vogel, Costa Petridis from the Chicago Art Institute, Yaëlle Biro from the Met, and Christina Hellmich from the de Young. Deputy Director and chief curator of the National Museum for African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Chris Kreamer and I talked for four hours straight about them in my home in 2013 — Songye and Luba, gender distinctions, primary and secondary groove patterns, mouth shapes, morphological details, emotional expressions, functions and purpose, patina… This was a truly inspiring afternoon, I loved it.
At this point, I would like to share a little bit of breaking news with you regarding my future plans for the collection. For me, it is important that many of these works have the opportunity to reach an audience around the world, to teach and astonish, after their residency in our collection. I want the public to see what I, as a sculptor, have seen. In a large group installation, the learning experience of contemplating their combination of intelligent architecture and emotional expression, their denial of natural order, and their otherworldliness is key to opening one’s eyes not only to the esoteric world of these masks but also to the creativity of the artists who carved them.
To that end, and to commemorate a major planned gift from the collection, I am thrilled to be working with curator Kevin D. Dumouchelle at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art to develop an exhibition and related publication that we hope to debut in Washington, D.C., perhaps as soon as late 2023. We are still working on final arrangements — including, hopefully, commitments from other museums that might wish to host the exhibition (and, who knows, perhaps even adopt a selection of works themselves).
They both deny the natural order. My work denies its material identity and the physical properties of gravity, as it establishes a sense of peaceful continuity. The masks have a sense of otherworldliness with their combination of human, animal, and spirit, that is beyond our world. And I have found many Songye masks to possess a continuity of form through their groove patterns, facial structure, and emotional weight that can reinforce their function. I have set up a study group of my work and several benevolent female Songye masks to further contemplate this relationship. Like my work, the kifwebe mask is more than what it looks like, it is what it does.
There are a few out there that I would love to add to this kifwebe corpus, but I cannot afford them. Sometimes I have followed a mask for ten years that was out of my reach, then an opportunity presents itself, and I do not hesitate one second. As much as I like to keep looking and sometimes buying, now I am beginning to think about their next home.
Be patient, go slow, look and study, resist buying, develop a feeling for what moves you. Find dealers you trust, go to museums, read, do research. That is really the sanest advice.
Or, if you have a passion that cannot wait, plunge in, and ride your passion, make mistakes, be heartbroken when you realize the masterpiece you bought is really a copy. Then do it again and again, learn by the mistakes, the pain is a good teacher. Hopefully, as your eye and intuition develop, you will see and acquire objects that are old and powerful that speak the truth.